Human impacts on terrestrial hydrology: Climate change versus pumping and irrigation

Ian M. Ferguson, Reed M. Maxwell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Scopus citations


Global climate change is altering terrestrial water and energy budgets, with subsequent impacts on surface and groundwater resources; recent studies have shown that local water management practices such as groundwater pumping and irrigation similarly alter terrestrial water and energy budgets over many agricultural regions, with potential feedbacks on weather and climate. Here we use a fully-integrated hydrologic model to directly compare effects of climate change and water management on terrestrial water and energy budgets of a representative agricultural watershed in the semi-arid Southern Great Plains, USA. At local scales, we find that the impacts of pumping and irrigation on latent heat flux, potential recharge and water table depth are similar in magnitude to the impacts of changing temperature and precipitation; however, the spatial distributions of climate and management impacts are substantially different. At the basin scale, the impacts on stream discharge and groundwater storage are remarkably similar. Notably, for the watershed and scenarios studied here, the changes in groundwater storage and stream discharge in response to a 2.5 °C temperature increase are nearly equivalent to those from groundwater-fed irrigation. Our results imply that many semi-arid basins worldwide that practice groundwater pumping and irrigation may already be experiencing similar impacts on surface water and groundwater resources to a warming climate. These results demonstrate that accurate assessment of climate change impacts and development of effective adaptation and mitigation strategies must account for local water management practices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number044022
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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